Institute appoints professor for elite fruit fly research

by Peter Kauffner

An extra pair of wings might not help a fly soar through the air, but the mutation might help scientists. And with an appointment from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to assist him, a University associate professor of genetics and cell biology could lead the way to a new understanding of human genetic development.
“It’s quite an honor,” said Michael O’Connor, 43, a specialist in the genetics of fruit flies, who will begin working at the University this fall. He is the first University faculty member to receive an appointment from the institute.
The institute will provide O’Connor with about $200,000 a year in grant money for at least six years. Nationally, there are currently about 330 researchers with appointments from the institute.
“(The institute) is able to be extremely selective,” said Robert Elde, dean of the University’s College of Biological Sciences, “so it represents the funding of a scientific elite. (The appointment) is a signal that the University of Minnesota has investigators on par with other institutions that have that kind of elite research going on.”
O’Connor received his doctorate degree from Tufts University and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He has been working at the University of California, Irvine for the past nine years.
While at Harvard, O’Connor worked with Jeffrey Simon, now an assistant professor of biochemistry at the University.
“What typifies Mike is the fact that he is down to earth,” Simon said. “It’s a real pleasure to work with him because you are able to focus on the scientific issues that need to be resolved rather than worrying about things like who’s going to get credit and more political kinds of considerations.”
O’Connor’s research focuses on developmental biology, the study of how the various types of cells in a mature organism developed from a single fertilized egg.
In an embryo, cells are all of the same type. But as an organism develops, cells in different parts of the body develop increasingly specialized functions.
“The particular thing that we are investigating is the role of growth factors,” O’Connor said. Growth factors are proteins that direct the development of other cells.
“(Growth factors) are a very exciting and important research discipline right now,” Simon said. “(O’Connor) is at the cutting edge of that particular field.”
O’Connor has found that a particular group of proteins responsible for bone growth in higher animals also plays an important role in fruit fly development.
“In the fly, they direct the pattern of how the fly develops,” O’Connor said. “They probably do the same thing in vertebrates.”
If the gene that produces these proteins in a fly is implanted into a human, it will produce bone growth. If the gene that produces the proteins in a human are implanted into a mutated fly, the mutation can be corrected.
“The amazing thing is that these proteins are functionally equivalent,” said O’Connor.
The fruit fly has long been a favorite subject of study for geneticists because they mature more quickly and are more easily manipulated than are mammals. Because so many fly genes are analogous to human genes, research on flies has direct implications for human genetic research, O’Connor said.
With a $455 million annual budget and a $9.6 billion endowment, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute is the largest private supporter of biomedical research and education in the United States.